Roundup: Advent art, songs, poems

So much to share today! Be sure not to miss “Psalm 126” by Drew Miller (a new favorite Advent song) and Matthew Milliner’s excellent presentation on the Virgin Mary in art, which opened an exhibition that’s running in Southern California—both below. (If you only have time to take in a few items from this post, those are the ones I’d recommend.)

PODCAST EPISODE: “A Time for Wanting and Waiting: An Advent Conversation with W. David O. Taylor”: In this recent episode of The Road to Now, hosts Bob Crawford and Chris Breslin interview liturgical theologian David Taylor [previously] about the season of Advent: what it is, its history and how it fits into the wider church year (see especially 43:29ff.), the canon of Advent and Christmas songs, and the gift the Psalms offers us during this season. Referencing his 2015 Washington Post article, Taylor says our picture of Christ’s coming, especially as expressed through our hymnody, tends to be unidimensional and far too sanitized:

We should permit the Nativity stories to remain as strange and bizarre and fantastical and difficult as they in fact are, rather than taming and distilling them down to this one nugget or theme of effusive joy. There is effusive joy in that—it’s simply that that’s not the only thing that characterizes these stories. Unfortunately, most of our canon of Christmas carols or hymns tends to focus on what I would argue is only 50 percent of the Nativity stories. Everything that begins with Elizabeth and Zechariah and goes all the way to, say, Anna and Simeon and the visit of the Magi and the flight to Egypt . . . it really is one whole story that is being told with these subplots.

I would love to see us create . . . new music that either retells portions that we are already telling but not the whole of it, or we need to tell parts that have not yet been told. . . . Let’s ask ourselves how God is at work in all the minor-key or difficult or dissonant parts of the Nativity stories, not absent from—those are not extraneous to God incarnating himself in Jesus Christ. Those are essential parts of it. And so how can our hymns become ways of praying ourselves into these stories so they can sink deeply into the fibers of our hearts and minds and bodies, and for us to say, “Oh, all the weird and difficult and dissonant parts of our lives are part and parcel of God’s good work,” not, again, on the margins of it, or things we should eschew.

To help deepen and expand the church’s repertoire of Christmas music, Taylor founded, along with a few others, the Christmas Songwriters Project. The Psalms are an inspiration in this task, as they express a joy that is at times quiet and at others raucous, as in the Nativity narratives, and that exists as part of a dynamic constellation of emotions and postures that praise can encompass. Most of us don’t recognize the pure, undistilled happiness that is marketed to us throughout December, Taylor says, and we shouldn’t force ourselves to try to feel it but rather should take a cue from the Psalms and also see the same emotional complexity at work at the beginning of the Gospels:

The Psalms, and I think Christian faith at its heart, can make space for joy and sorrow to exist alongside each other in a way that happiness, as we commonly understand it, cannot, or only with great difficulty. . . . What the psalms of praise do . . . is that in one movement, there’s this effusive joy or a shouting joy or a convivial joy, and then it segues to a quieter joy or a contemplative joy or a yearning, painful kind of joy. . . .

So in the season of Advent, when we look at the characters in scripture—you know, Mary and Joseph and Zechariah and Elizabeth and the shepherds and Anna and Simeon—every one of them has this moment, perhaps, of which we could say, “That sounds like joy.” . . . But immediately before or immediately after, it transitions to something else. So does that mean that joy is negated? Is joy squashed? Is joy extinguished? Or is joy able to continue to exist side by side, to subsist, with a continued experience of longing or a sudden moment of sadness?

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ART BY SCOTT ERICKSON: This month Portland-based artist Scott Erickson has been posting on Instagram Advent-themed images he has made, along with thoughtful meditations. Some emphasize the bodiliness of the Incarnation, which often gets overlooked, presumably out of a sense of propriety. But “grace comes to us floating in embryonic fluid . . . embedded in the uterine wall of a Middle Eastern teenage woman,” Erickson writes about With Us – With Child, to which one Instagrammer responded, “This is trajectory changing. Thank you for this. Nipples, vaginas, and Jesus CAN coexist!” Another mentioned how she had never seen Mary with a belly button and a linea nigra before. The image reminds us that Jesus was indeed “born of woman” (Gal. 4:4).

Erickson, Scott_With Us, With Child
Scott Erickson (American, 1977–), With Us – With Child, 2016 [purchase as poster]
Another imaginative image suggests that Christ came to set the world on fire, so to speak. God, who is of old, gives himself to earth as a Jewish babe (“Love has always been FOR GIVENESS,” Erickson writes), sparking a revolution.

Erickson, Scott_Advent
Art by Scott Erickson

View more art by Scott Erickson @scottthepainter.

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LECTIONARY POEMS FOR ADVENT: This year Englewood Review of Books launched a new feature on their website: a weekly post of four to six poems that resonate with the Revised Common Lectionary readings for that week. “We will offer here a broad selection of classic and contemporary poems from diverse poets that stir our imaginations with thoughts of how the biblical text speaks to us in the twenty-first century. We hope that these poems will be fruitful not only for preachers who will be preaching these texts on the coming Sunday, but also for church members in the pews, as a way to prime our minds for encountering the biblical texts.” I’m really enjoying these stellar selections, several of which are new to me.

Continue reading “Roundup: Advent art, songs, poems”

Roundup: Saar installation, Christian themes in Australian and New Zealand art, “heart of God” chant, jazz Communion song

VISUAL MEDITATION: On The Alpha & The Omega by Betye Saar: A few weeks ago my commentary on a Betye Saar installation was published on ArtWay.eu. The idiomatic Hebrew in the title is a reference not to Christ but to the beginning and the end of life, a theme Saar explored by arranging around a blue-painted room such found objects as an antique cradle, dried hydrangeas, a boat shell, a mammy figurine, a washboard, empty apothecary bottles, books, clocks, a moon-phase diagram, etc.

Saar, Betye_Alpha and Omega installation
Betye Saar, The Alpha & The Omega: The Beginning & The End, 2013. Installation at Roberts & Tilton, Culver City, California.

With an educational background in design, Saar began her career as a printmaker and working in theater on costumes and sets. She then ventured into collage, which led to assemblage (for which she is most celebrated), sculpture, and installations. With installations, she likes how “the whole body has the experience”—how you are quite literally inside the work. Saar is one of today’s leading American contemporary artists, with two exhibitions currently running in the United States: one at MoMA, and the other at LACMA. I first encountered her in a college art history course, through her most famous work, The Liberation of Aunt Jemima. Race, memory, and spirituality are recurring themes in her oeuvre.

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ESSAY: “‘A pretty decent sort of bloke’: Towards the quest for an Australian Jesus” by Jason A. Goroncy: “What happens to religious images and symbols when they get employed outside of their traditional contexts and charged with unapproved and heterodox interpretations?” asks Goroncy. “From many Aboriginal elders, such as Tjangika Napaltjani, Bob Williams and Djiniyini Gondarra, to painters, such as Arthur Boyd, Pro Hart and John Forrester-Clack, from historians, such as Manning Clark, and poets, such as Maureen Watson, Francis Webb and Henry Lawson, to celebrated novelists, such as Joseph Furphy, Patrick White and Tim Winton, the figure of Jesus has occupied an endearing and idiosyncratic place in the Australian imagination. It is evidence enough that ‘Australians have been anticlerical and antichurch, but rarely anti-Jesus’. But which Jesus? In what follows, I seek to listen to what some Australians make of Jesus, and to consider some theological implications of their contributions for the enduring quest for an Australian Jesus.” [HT: Art/s and Theology Australia]

Dowling, Julie_Black Madonna, Omega
Julie Dowling (Badimaya/Yamatji/Widi, 1969–), Black Madonna: Omega, 2004. Synthetic polymer paint, red ocher, glitter, and metallic paint on canvas, 120 × 100 cm. Art Gallery of Western Australia. “I painted this in honour of First Nation mothers who have their children stolen from them by white governments in order to assimilate their children.”
Mombassa, Reg_Jesus Is Stripped Bare
Chris O’Doherty (aka Reg Mombassa) (Australian, 1951–), Australian Jesus Is Stripped Bare, station 10 from the Stations of the Cross cycle. Chapel at the Australian Centre for Christianity and Culture, Barton, ACT, Australia. Photo: Katherine Spackman.

Goroncy quotes Wilson Yates, who says that Jesus has become “a part of the culture and life far beyond the final control of the church, . . . imaged in diverse ways by non-Christian as well as Christian artists, often contrary to the church’s dominant interpretation. . . . This should not be viewed as threatening,” however, but rather as “a means by which, paradoxically, the traditional symbols are kept vital – are kept alive in the midst of human life.”

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AUDIO INTERVIEW: Justin Paton on New Zealand artist Colin McCahon: In celebration of the centenary of Colin McCahon’s birth, art critic and curator Justin Paton has published McCahon Country, which examines nearly two hundred of the artist’s paintings and drawings. In this Saturday Morning (RNZ) interview, Paton says that McCahon is one of the great modern religious artists; an unabashed Christian, he grappled with how to make religious art in a post-religious age, often interweaving biblical themes and texts with New Zealand landscapes. His paintings, Paton says, are “an unequivocal statement of faith,” painted at times with “sophisticated unsophistication.” In 1948 one critic described them dismissively as “like graffiti in some celestial lavatory”—a comparison Paton affirms but sees as commendatory.

McCahon, Colin_The days and the nights in the wilderness
Colin McCahon (New Zealand, 1919–1987), The days and the nights in the wilderness showing the constant flow of light passing into a dark landscape, 1971
McCahon, Colin_The Resurrection of Lazarus
Colin McCahon (New Zealand, 1919–1987), Practical religion: The resurrection of Lazarus showing Mount Martha, 1969–70. Acrylic on unstretched canvas, 207.5 × 807 cm. Te Papa (Museum of New Zealand), Wellington.

I was familiar with McCahon’s early works—Annunciations, Crucifixions—but not so much the later ones featured here. For example, The days and the nights, about which Paton says,

You could take a first look at this thing and you could think it’s not so exciting, in a way. It’s . . . smeary blacks and then there’s this . . . kind of clay color—muddy, you might say. . . . The form is this kind of ocher cross with black surrounding it. But give it some time, and you realize that the space above describes a horizon line. You can see the riffle of clouds along that horizon. If you know Muriwai on the West Coast, you can recognize it as a West Coast landscape, which is of course the spirit landscape up which souls travel in Maori mythology. And then you realize that this cross is also a kind of estuary, that it is descending through to areas or gates. So it is at once the Christian cross, it’s the Buddhist idea of light as grace which descends towards us . . .

About Lazarus:

McCahon said the Lazarus story was one of the great stories about seeing: all those people who were witnesses to this event saw as never before. What’s wonderful in the work is, as you read your way from left to right—and it really is this kind of epic telling of the story—when you’re about two-thirds of the way across, he almost makes you into Lazarus. He puts you into the position of this person who is emerging from the tomb, because there’s this sliver of light that opens up and bursts then fills the right-hand third of the painting. It’s like coming out of a dark space and suddenly being blinded by sunlight.

It’s a great example of what a great reader he was. He got into these texts with the avidity of a fan. You really felt he was there with these people in this ancient story and then tries to put us inside it as we stand and walk in front of this giant canvas. It has a terrific oscillation between something worldly and vernacular and then something exalted and sacred at the other end.

For more on McCahon, see “Victory over death: The gospel according to Colin McCahon” by Rex Butler (2012), The Spirit of Colin McCahon by Zoe Alderton (2015), and Colin McCahon: A Question of Faith (2003).

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CHANT: “I Am Here in the Heart of God” by Erin McGaughan, adapt. & arr. Chandra Rule: At the Singing Beloved Community workshop held in September in Cincinnati, song leader Chanda Rule led participants in a chant that she adapted from Erin McGaughan. To McGaughan’s original, Rule added three new verses with a modulation between each, and she presented the whole of it in a call-and-response format. [HT: Global Christian Worship]

I am here in the heart of God
God is here in the heart of me
Like the wave in the water and the water in the wave
I am here in the heart of God

I am here in the breath of God
God is here in the breath of me
Like the wind in the springtime and the springtime in the wind
I am here in the breath of God

I am here in the soul of God
God is here in the soul of me
Like the flame in the fire and the fire in the flame
I am here in the soul of God

I am here in the mind of God
God is here in the mind of me
Like the earth in my body and my body in the earth
Like the flame in the fire and the fire in the flame
Like the wind in the springtime and the springtime in the wind
Like the wave in the water and the water in the wave
I am here in the heart of God

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SONG: “I Hunger and I Thirst,” words by John S. B. Monsell (1866), with new music by Walter Brath: I was listening to the video recording of the Grace College Worship Arts jazz vespers service that took place November 8 at Warsaw First United Methodist Church in Indiana, when I heard this striking hymn. Written by a nineteenth-century Anglican clergyman, it was set to music by Dr. Walter Brath, an assistant professor of worship arts at Grace College, who’s playing the piano in the video. The performance features Grammy Award–winning bassist John Patitucci, and vocalist Ethan Leininger. Click here to listen to the whole service and to see the full list of musicians. [HT: Global Christian Worship]

I hunger and I thirst:
Jesu, my manna be;
ye living waters, burst
out of the rock for me.

Thou bruised and broken Bread,
my life-long wants supply;
as living souls are fed,
O feed me, or I die.

Thou true life-giving Vine,
let me thy sweetness prove;
renew my life with thine,
refresh my soul with love.

Rough paths my feet have trod
since first their course began:
feed me, thou Bread of God;
help me, thou Son of Man.

For still the desert lies
my thirsting soul before:
O living waters, rise
within me evermore.

Roundup: Four talks and an interview

Hi friends. I’m preparing for a trip to Bangalore, India, later this month, to meet an artist whose work I admire, Jyoti Sahi [previously]. I apologize for being slow to respond to emails lately, but I do appreciate each and every message I receive from my readers! I read them all and will try my best to respond just as soon as I get the chance. Please note: email is the best way to get in touch with me, as I’ve found that Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter messages tend to get buried under a slew of notifications and are harder for me to tag and track. Thank you again for your support of Art & Theology, and for all your questions, encouragements, personal introductions, invitations, and art recommendations.

In this roundup I want to share a few recorded lectures that I’ve listened to in the past month and have really enjoyed; I hope you will too. The first two are by art historians speaking to secular audiences at museums about the (Protestant) art of the Dutch Golden Age—which I saw a lot of this spring during my visit to the Netherlands! The second two are by Christian professors speaking at Christian academic institutions, from different angles, about prophetic art. And lastly, Biola University interviews Krista Tippett, one of my absolute favorite podcast hosts.

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“Dutch Art of the Golden Age, 1600–1675” by Dr. Eric Denker, National Gallery of Art, Washington, DC, July 14, 2019: In this hour-long lecture, Eric Denker discusses some of the highlights from the National Gallery of Art’s seventeenth-century Dutch art collection: paintings by Emanuel de Witte, Jan van der Heyden, Salomon van Ruysdael, Aelbert Cuyp, Ludolf Bakhuizen, Hendrick ter Brugghen (of the Utrecht Caravaggisti), Frans Hals, Johannes Cornelisz Verspronck, Judith Leyster, Thomas de Keyser, Rembrandt, Jan Steen, Pieter de Hooch, Willem Claesz Heda, Johannes Vermeer, Ambrosius Bosschaert, and Adriaen Coorte. These include scenes of everyday life (such as church and domestic interiors), landscapes, portraits, and still lifes.

Interior of the Oude Kerk, Amsterdam by Emanuel de Witte
Emanuel de Witte (Dutch, ca. 1616–1691/92), The Interior of the Oude Kerk, Amsterdam, ca. 1660. Oil on canvas, 31 11/16 × 39 3/8 in. (80.5 × 100 cm). National Gallery of Art, Washington, DC.

I especially appreciated him pointing out details from de Witte’s Interior of the Oude Kerk, Amsterdam, which brings together death (a burial plot has just been dug up under the stone floor, with a skull visible in the upturned dirt heap) and life (a woman nursing her infant on a bench at the right). Unlike the French and Italian painting of the time, Denker says, in Dutch painting “there is nothing too vulgar . . . to portray. They felt that they inhabited God’s world, and that everything that existed in that world was necessarily of God’s making.” Hence the dog relieving himself on a column!

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“Food for Thought: Pieter Claesz. and Dutch Still Life” by Dr. John Walsh, Yale University Art Gallery, September 25, 2015: The Dutch coined the word “still life” (stilleven) to describe pictures of things that are incapable of movement or that lack a soul. In the Dutch conception, such paintings weren’t just for looking at but also for meditating on; the aim, in other words, was visual pleasure and moral edification. John Walsh outlines various categories: vanitas paintings, breakfast pieces, kitchen still lifes, pipe-smoking pieces, arrangements of food and wares on a table, fruit pieces, compositions of dead game and weapons, and flowers.

Walsh discusses many different paintings in detail, by many different artists (not just by the premier one in the lecture title), including a few examples of contemporaneous still lifes from Italy and Spain. He really made them come alive for me! The feasts of meats and cheeses, fruits and vegetables, for example, with all their subtle richness of texture and color, are a celebration of God’s goodness. In honor of Thanksgiving in a few weeks, here’s Pieter Claesz’s Still Life with a Turkey Pie:

Claesz, Pieter_Still Life with a Turkey Pie
Pieter Claesz (Dutch, 1597/98–1660), Still Life with a Turkey Pie, 1627. Oil on panel, 29 1/2 × 51 9/10 in. (75 × 132 cm). Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam.

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“Practicing the Prophetic: Liturgy, Formation, and Discernment for Public Life” by Dr. James K.A. Smith, Seattle Pacific University, October 16, 2019: James K.A. Smith has made a name for himself writing about worship, worldview, and cultural formation, through such books as You Are What You Love: The Spiritual Power of Habit and his Cultural Liturgies series. The first half of this talk, which starts at 6:15, is a good introduction to his work in that arena, as he discusses the liturgical nature of public life—how “the rhythms and rituals of public life aren’t just something we do; they are also doing something to us.” Cultural forces can de-form us, he says, in often insidious ways, such that we don’t even realize the deformation. Smith is all about getting us to take stock of what we’ve been conscripted to want, to love, to hope for; to perform a “liturgical analysis” on the social imaginary that we’ve absorbed through our culture’s images, stories, myths, rituals, practices, etc. And for a toolkit, he offers St. Augustine.

The second half of the talk (starting at about 33:40) is devoted to “the art of prophetic hope,” which “requires both the renewal of the Christian imagination and an outward offering of a Christian imagination for the sake of the world.” He continues: “What’s at stake in our liturgical formation is really a restorying of the imagination. It’s a restoring of the imagination because it’s a restorying of the imagination. And if Christianity has something to offer our neighbors, I think that will be most powerfully and prophetically embodied in the arts, which meet people on the register of the imagination.” I am always so compelled by Smith’s words; they’re all so quotable. But particularly germane to the Art & Theology project I have going here, and also to the upcoming Advent season, is what he says about a truly “Christian” art being that which holds together hurt and hope:

There is nothing more scandalous than Christian eschatology, I realize. And yet nothing speaks more directly to a hurtful and fearful world. This eschatological orientation, which is at the heart of the prophets, fuels art that is suspended between the already and the not yet. The unique imaginative capacity of the arts speaks to this ineffaceable human hunger for restoration even while honoring the heartbreak of our present pilgrimage. A Christian eschatology nourishes a distinct imagination that refuses to be constrained by the catalog of the currently available and instead imagines a world to come breaking into the present. Art that is infused with this eschatological imagination at once laments and hopes. In its lament, it honors our experience of brokenness, the heartbreak of the now. And in its hope, it gives voice to our longings. It neither wallows in romanticized tragedy nor escapes to sentimental naivete. Such eschatological art is like an embodied form of the Lord’s Prayer. Each such work is its own requiem, such that what Jan Swafford says of Mozart’s Requiem could be true of all such eschatological art. He says, “It’s full of death and hope, lacerating sorrow and uncanny beauty.”

I like this “uncanniness” metaphor. Uncanniness is an apt descriptor of such art that paints beauty with ashes, that can walk the soul through the valley of the shadow of death on the way to a feast in the wilderness. Such art stops us short in its uncanny, even paradoxical, ability to embody both hurt and hope.

By way of example, he discusses the Tomb of Maria Magdalena Langhans (1723–1751), who died in childbirth, along with her baby, on Holy Saturday; the Memorial to Fallen Workers in Hamilton, Ontario; and Sugar and Spice by Letitia Huckaby [previously].

Nahl, Johann August_Tomb of Madame Langhans
Johann August Nahl (German, 1710–1781), Tomb of Mme. Maria Magdalena Langhans, 1751–53. Sandstone. (This is an 18th-century replica; the original is in the village church of Hindelbank in Bern, Switzerland.)

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“Turn and Face the Strange: Thoughts on Ergonomics and Artistry” by Jeffrey Overstreet, Sacrament & Story conference, Brehm Cascadia, Bellevue, Washington, April 5, 2019: “This is a presentation about the courage that artists must have in order to behold, and then bear witness to, new visions of beauty and truth,” says film critic and professor Jeffrey Overstreet [previously here and here]. He teaches his students at Seattle Pacific University (a Christian institution) to ask, like Miles Morales, “What’s up, danger?” To go outside the walls, to the wild edges, and be still, and then to report on that encounter. Films he discusses, whose characters (or director) “go to the edge of the water,” so to speak, include Babette’s Feast, The Secret of Kells, The Fits, Moonrise Kingdom, and 24 Frames.

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An Interview with Krista Tippett by Jonathan A. Anderson, Biola University presidential luncheon, La Mirada, California, February 22, 2017: Journalist Krista Tippett is the most talented interviewer I know—time after time initiating open, hospitable, genuinely mutual conversations with a range of subjects. (It’s no wonder she’s won a Peabody Award and a National Humanities Medal! The latter for “thoughtfully delving into the mysteries of human existence.”) Here Jonathan A. Anderson, the director of Biola University’s Center for Christianity, Culture, and the Arts, interviews her, and it’s so rich!

After graduating from Brown in 1983, Tippett became a foreign correspondent in divided Berlin. After years of that, she earned an MDiv from Yale. In 2003 she created the NPR show Speaking of Faith, which, despite initial skepticism from many corners, became wildly popular and evolved into On Being. Her upbringing was Christian, but she interviews people from all different faith traditions—poets, clergy, scientists, doctors, historians, activists, etc.—always opening with the question “What is your spiritual background?” The show’s tagline is “Pursuing deep thinking, social courage, moral imagination and joy, to renew inner life, outer life, and life together.” Again and again, On Being brightens my outlook, builds my compassion, and gives me hope and inspiration, and I’m so grateful to Tippett for creating that space.

In her interview at Biola, Tippett describes what it was like to discover theology as “one of humanity’s great disciplines,” as “carrying questions and virtues and substantive riches that should be able to find a way in public life true to their depth and their wisdom.” She discusses her desire to be true to the intellectual and spiritual content of faith—the latter almost absent in public talk; how she responds to the criticism of being “soft” on religious voices; and she gives tips for conversing with those you disagree with. When Anderson opened up the Biola project to critique by asking her the problems and possibilities with their approach to Christian liberal arts education, she had this beautiful response: “Whatever our particularity is, that is our gift to the world.” To immerse oneself fully in a particular religious tradition is not a narrowing but a deepening, she said; being deeply who you are and having convictions and seeking truth is not incompatible with living lovingly and peaceably in a pluralistic world!

Tippett is the author of Speaking of Faith: Why Religion Matters—and How to Talk About It (Penguin, 2008) and Becoming Wise: An Inquiry into the Mystery and Art of Living (Penguin, 2016). Her radio show / podcast, On Being, has a vast archive, and I only just became a listener two years ago, but here are some episodes that I remember particularly enjoying:

Roundup: “Say Yes!” Advent video, “Neighbor Songs,” poetry prescriptions, global art history, and more

ADVENT RESOURCES: Advent is just over a month away, and once again, SALT Project [previously] has produced some wonderful new devotional resources: (1) a customizable “Say Yes!” video for churches (see below), (2) a set of five unique “Say Yes” placements in three different color schemes, including black-and-white to be colored in by you and/or your family (note: these are sold as a digital download, so you will have to print and laminate them yourself), and (3) “Advent and Hygge: The Art of Coziness,” five devotional table tents, one for each week of Advent and a fifth for Christmas Eve/Day (promo video below).

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NEW ALBUM: Neighbor Songs by The Porter’s Gate Worship Project: Released October 25, an album themed on loving our neighbors across lines of difference. Contributing artists include Urban Doxology, Josh Garrels, Audrey Assad, Paul Zach, Casey J, Leslie Jordan, Zach Bolen (of Citizens), Diana Gameros, Latifah Alattas, Lauren Goans (of Lowland Hum), and others. Below is a promo video, followed by two songs from the album, “Blessed Are the Merciful” and “The Earth Shall Know.”

“The Porter’s Gate is a sacred ecumenical arts collective reimagining and recreating worship that welcomes, reflects and impacts both the community and the church. The group was founded in 2017 by Isaac and Megan Wardell with a mission to be a ‘porter’ for the Christian church—one who looks beyond church doors for guests to welcome. It started as a group of 50-plus songwriters, musicians, scholars, pastors and music industry professionals from a variety of worship traditions and cultural backgrounds who gathered to discuss challenges in the church and write songs in response.”

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ARTICLE: “The Best Christian Albums of the 2010s”: Three of my choices for top Christian albums of the decade were selected for this Gospel Coalition article—and I got to write about them! Liz Vice (whom I saw in concert this year), Psallos, and Poor Bishop Hooper are creating excellent, exciting, soul-nourishing music that every Christian should know about; these albums of theirs that I’ve blurbed make a good entryway into their fuller body of work.

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POETRY COLUMN: “Poetry Rx,” The Paris Review: Launched in March 2018, “Poetry Rx” is a column in which “readers write in with a specific emotion, and our resident poets—Sarah Kay, Kaveh Akbar, and Claire Schwartz—take turns prescribing the perfect poems to match.” Some letter writers need hope or forgiveness; others, self-motivation or courage. Others want to feel love, or want to know how to express immense gratitude, or joy. Schwartz writes, “When I sit down to answer these letters, I often find myself reflecting on the purpose of my response. What should the poem offer? Challenge? Company? Direction? Language for an old feeling? A way toward new possibility?”

I’ve so appreciated not only the prescribed poetry but also the vulnerability of the letter writers, who present complex cocktails of feelings that show the multifariousness of being human. For example, the September 5 write-ins were: someone who is terrified of forgetting little pieces of a loved one who has died; a college student experiencing a growing apart from her childhood BFF and who is therefore lamenting the loss of “the magic that is young female friendship”; and a novelist who is hurt that her boyfriend and mother are not interested in reading her latest book (“I am destroyed that those who urged me to chase my dreams now cannot be bothered to witness them. . . . Do you have a poem for me that can ease the loneliness of being a writer? Of creating a world that those you love will not step into?”). How to be optimistic for your partner, how to work through feelings of restlessness, how to deal with a loved one’s addiction, how to manage the inevitable losses inherent to the medical profession, how to navigate the disorientation following a loss of faith, how to make last an ecstatic moment in nature, how to persevere as a schoolteacher who is pouring all her intellectual passion into a seeming void (bored students)—these are all situations for which poetic wisdom or solace is sought.

One woman wrote in looking for a poem “for a mother’s love.” (“My love for my daughter sometimes feels terrible and desperate and weighty with responsibility. But also sweet and tender and silly.”) Kay prescribed “Saying Our Names” by Marianne Murphy Zarzana, which begins,

Notice how just one syllable—
say Jack—can expand and become
the world, round and whole,
when it is a child’s name
being formed by a mother’s mouth.

For someone who is “unfamiliar with the geography of joy” and wants to learn how to navigate that space, Akbar recommends “So Much Happiness” by Naomi Shihab Nye, which begins,

It is difficult to know what to do with so much happiness.
With sadness there is something to rub against,
a wound to tend with lotion and cloth.
When the world falls in around you, you have pieces to pick up,
something to hold in your hands, like ticket stubs or change.

But happiness floats.

I got a kick out of the poem Kay prescribed to a “patient” who is experiencing loathing for the first time and doesn’t know what to do with it: “Grief, Not Guilt” by Jeanann Verlee. Its first three lines are

I wish you a tongue scalded by tea.
A hangover. Burnt toast. Stubbed toes. A lost job.
I wish you weeping in the shower. Salt in the sugar bowl.

For the death of a loved one, Schwartz prescribes W. S. Merwin’s “Separation,” which reads in full,

Your absence has gone through me
Like thread through a needle.
Everything I do is stitched with its color.

If you’re feeling discouraged by the onslaught of terrible news reports, try “Self-Portrait with No Flag” by Safia Elhillo, which begins,

i pledge allegiance to my
homies      to my mother’s
small & cool palms     to
the gap between my brother’s
two front teeth      & to
my grandmother’s good brown
hands       good strong brown
hands gathering my bare feet
in her lap

Introducing the column, the “doctors” wrote,

No, I don’t think that poetry will save us. And yet, and yet . . . The “and yet” is what this column is for. And yet, maybe we can find poems that vibrate at the same frequency that your heart is humming. And yet, maybe we can find a poem you can escape inside of for a few minutes. And yet, maybe you just needed an excuse to share the vulnerable parts of yourself, and what better way to honor that courage than to offer you the poems that carry us through our own vulnerable times.

If you’re feeling something that you want to see reflected back to you in poetry or through which you want poetry to guide you, write in!

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TV SERIES: Civilizations: Released last year and available on Netflix, Civilizations is a global art history series in nine episodes that “examine[s] the formative role of art and the creative imagination in the forging of humanity.” It expands on Kenneth Clark’s 1969 landmark series, Civilisation, which was criticized for covering only Western art history. Its three presenters are Simon Schama, Mary Beard, and David Olusoga.

As with any project of this scope, criticisms are bound to arise (several are mentioned, for example, in the mixed review from Hyperallergic), especially in how cultural interaction and exchange are discussed. But this focus on said interactions is, in my opinion, a hallmark of the series, and I think it was handled well overall. Rather than showing cultural production happening all over the globe in isolated pockets, it shows a mutual influencing in various directions. Episode 4, “Encounters,” is particularly dedicated to this theme, though it recurs throughout. Narrator Liev Schreiber opens that episode:

From the moment they meet, civilizations begin to influence one another’s art. During the 15th century, European sailors embarked on a new age of exploration. Cultures that previously were vast oceans apart now met for the first time. But before this became a story of conquest, plunder, and empire, there was a forgotten era of discovery. And for many, this was a golden age, when curiosity, mutual respect, and the exchange of goods and ideas were recorded in the art of countless human encounters.

So yes, you can see from this quote that the series does tend toward Westocentrism—but given that it was produced by Nutopia for PBS and BBC, I’d say that was unavoidable. This episode highlights, among many other artworks, Benin bronzes from modern-day Nigeria (whose artists acquired their raw materials from Muslim merchants crossing the Sahara and, later, the Portuguese); namban screens from feudal Japan; the folk art associated with Day of the Dead in Mexico (a fusion of Aztec beliefs and Catholicism), as well as the Aztec influence on the gory religious art of the Spanish Baroque; and zoological and botanical illustrations, including Dürer’s famous rhinoceros woodcut (based on a written description of a rhino that was sent to Lisbon as a diplomatic gift from India) and the revolutionary drawings of naturalist Maria Sibylla Merian, a woman from seventeenth-century Holland who traveled unaccompanied to Surinam in South America to document the plants and insects there.

In episode 5, “Renaissances,” I learned that at the same time Michelangelo was building St. Peter’s dome in Rome, the famous Turkish architect Mimar Sinan was building Süleymaniye Mosque in Istanbul, both men vying for world’s biggest dome, to eclipse the Hagia Sophia. Michelangelo was aware of Sinan’s building projects through diplomatic and commercial reports. The East was also aware of the West—the Ottoman sultans invited Michelangelo and Leonardo in the early 1500s to build bridges in Istanbul.

Religion, of course, is a major through line, and there’s a whole episode (number 3), “God and Art,” devoted to it.

I also really enjoyed episode 6, “Paradise on Earth,” about landscape art around the world. It covers, among others, Chinese ink brush paintings, carpet weaving in Pakistan and Morocco, Jacob van Ruisdael and other Dutch landscape painters, J. M. W. Turner and Romanticism in England, the Hudson River School in America, Anselm Adams, and Hubble Space Telescope photography.

The whole series is beautifully shot and presented, and I recommend it. It enlarged my vision of the beauty of other cultures.

Roundup: Roger Lowther on “all things new,” Lord’s Prayer song playlist, and more

If you live in the Baltimore-Washington area, I hope I’ll see you at one or all of the Eliot Society events this fall! For “Heaven in a Nightclub” on October 26, we’re bringing in jazz pianist Bill Edgar from Philly to give a combo concert-lecture highlighting the spiritual roots of African American music. “The Art of Feasting” will kick off our Living Room Series on November 8, as Heidi Stevens, who teaches art at a local K-12 classical Christian school, will guide us in looking most especially at food table still life paintings from the Dutch Golden Age. On December 13, we’ll gather together again for more food and drinks and to collectively read Charles Dickens’s A Christmas Carol in character. Reserve your spots at https://eliotsociety.org/!

Heaven in a Nightclub

Art of Feasting.png

Christmas Carol event.png

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CONFERENCE: The 2019 Madeleine L’Engle Conference: Walking on Water: I just caught wind of this great opportunity taking place November 15–16 at All Angels’ Church in New York City, where L’Engle was a member. “In celebration of Madeleine L’Engle’s centenary year, this inaugural conference brings together a diverse group of artists and seekers to explore, challenge, and deepen our creative lives. . . . The conference has a combination of keynote addresses, panel discussions, and workshops that will be of interest to people across faith traditions who are interested how faith and art inform each other. There will also be sessions on the works and influence of Madeleine L’Engle, and opportunities for alumni of her workshops to reunite and share stories.”

The conference is co-directed by Sarah Arthur, author of A Light So Lovely: The Spiritual Legacy of Madeleine L’Engle (book trailer below), and Brian Allain, owner of Writing for Your Life. The headline speaker is children’s author Katherine Paterson (Bridge to Terabithia; The Great Gilly Hopkins).

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LECTURE: “Defining the New” by Roger Lowther: In this sixteen-minute talk from the Community Arts Tokyo International Arts Festival in June [previously], Roger Lowther draws out the festival’s theme of “All Things New” through piano music—namely, Bach’s Prelude in C Major and Chopin’s “Raindrop” Prelude. Both start out prettily, move through a section of dissonance, and then find a new and richer beginning on the other side. “In this world full of sadness,” says Lowther, “we can find a new beginning.” He tells the story of a church piano in Kamaishi City that took on water in the March 11, 2011, tsunami. Rather than throw it out as beyond repair, the church spent much time, effort, and money fixing it up, even though it would have been much easier to just buy a new one. In doing so, they demonstrated the gospel hope of “all things made new.”

Lowther and his wife, Abi, are the directors of the MAKE Collective, “a network of artists [under Mission to the World] who, like Bezalel, have been called by name, by God, and have been filled with the Spirit of God in wisdom, understanding, knowledge, and all kinds of craftsmanship (Exodus 31:2-3). They have embraced their gifts and accepted their unique opportunity and responsibility that the holistic, prophetic, and pastoral expression of those gifts affords in their participation in the evangelical/cultural mandate—God’s reconciliation of all things to Himself, in the context of global church planting movements.” Their values include listening, questioning, experimenting, challenging, generosity, transparency, inclusion, and excellence.

I had lunch with the founder of MAKE, Berenice Rarig [previously], last year and am always encouraged by the thoughtful content of the organization’s bimonthly e-newsletter—some of which can be viewed on their new website, https://themakecollective.org/. Their September newsletter pointed me to a new video of five missionary artists, including the Lowthers, discussing art as community building, as storytelling, and as therapy, as well as beauty in brokenness:

VIDEO: “Can Arts Also Be Missions?” [transcript]

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PLAYLIST: Philip Majorins of Liturgy Letter curated an excellent playlist of various settings and performances of the Lord’s Prayer by artists ranging from jazz greats Duke Ellington and Vince Guaraldi to gospelers Aretha Franklin and the Staples Singers to contemporary folk rockers Sandra McCracken and Gungor to Serbian Orthodox singer Divna Ljubojević and even the Byzantine darkwave band Anastasis. And more!

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CROWDFUNDING CAMPAIGN: Earlier this year I participated in the Art Stations of the Cross pilgrimage/exhibition in Amsterdam. One of the stops was Mozes en Aäronkerk, which housed Masha Trebukova’s Anywhere, Anytime. This series of paintings on glossy magazine pages raises awareness of human suffering around the globe, providing visual prompts for prayer and action. The artist is seeking to reproduce the images in a standard print-book format for mass production, and she needs help funding the project. Donate at https://www.voordekunst.nl/projecten/9400-anywhere-anytime.

Anywhere, Anytime

Roundup: Sketch notes from “Seeing the Story,” worship music for Spanish-speaking immigrant children, and more

Last weekend I was in Atlanta giving a talk on art and theology at North Decatur Presbyterian Church as part of the church’s “God’s Creative Story” program, enabled by a Vital Worship Grant from the Calvin Institute of Christian Worship. One of the attendees, Ross Boone (aka Raw Spoon), a local artist, took “sketch notes” of the talk, which I am so delighted by! I am posting them here with his permission. He does a lot of faith-inspired digital illustration, often in partnership with churches; you should definitely check him out.

"Seeing the Story" Sketch Notes by Raw Spoon

For “Seeing the Story: Visual Art for the Liturgical Year,” I used fifteen artworks, a mix of historical and contemporary, to chart a way through the church calendar, showing how art opens us up to the beauty of God’s story and helps us to see ourselves as participants in that story.

I really enjoyed getting to meet and worship with the folks at NDPC, and to continue the art conversation with them over the weekend. There was lots of engagement, which was really encouraging. Ellen Gadberry showed me some of the projects made by the liturgical art group she leads at the church. Many involved repurposed bulletins, which I love! One that’s currently in progress picks up on the lozenge shape present in the church’s architectural design, drawing on its symbolic use in Celtic art. Ellen also brought me to the High Museum of Art to see the new Romare Bearden exhibition and, at my request, the Clark Atlanta University Art Museum, where three new exhibitions, curated from the museum’s wonderful permanent collection, opened Sunday afternoon. (The museum was closed when we were there on Friday, as the art and signage were still being hung, but the curator graciously let us in for an unofficial preview!)

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CALL FOR RESEARCH PROPOSALS: Through its new Art Seeking Understanding initiative, the Templeton Religion Trust anticipates granting $12 million in funding over the next five years to research projects that connect art and spirituality. In particular: “Is there an empirically demonstrable connection between art and understanding? And if so, what distinctive cognitive value does engagement with the arts (production and/or consumption) generate? Under what conditions and in what ways does participation in artistic activities encourage or stimulate spiritual understanding, insight, or growth (meaning- or sense-making)?

“We’re bringing together writers, poets, painters, sculptors, musicians, dancers, filmmakers – artists of all kinds – as well as art historians and musicologists with philosophers, theologians, and scientists from a variety of sub-disciplines within the psychological, cognitive, and social sciences to conceive and design empirical and statistical studies of the cognitive significance of the arts with respect to spiritual realities and the discovery of new spiritual information.”

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POETRY BOOK CONTEST: Paraclete Press invites poets to submit a book-length (unpublished) manuscript for consideration of the inaugural Paraclete Poetry Prize, with a deadline of January 30, 2020. Two winners will be selected by a three-judge panel and announced April 1, 2020. Both prizes involve cash and book publication. Paraclete, the publishing arm of the Community of Jesus, publishes some of today’s best spiritual poets, including Scott Cairns, Paul Mariani, Jeanne Murray Walker, Luci Shaw, and Tania Runyan.

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ALBUM FOR IMMIGRANT CHILDREN: Somos Ovejas del Señor by Alabanzaré: Jared Weatherholtz is the director of a South City Church Latinx ministry called Refugio, through which he teaches the Bible, develops worship resources, invests in relationship, and helps immigrants navigate life in St. Louis. He said US immigration policy has been taking a toll on the community he serves, especially its children, who fear going to school not only because of the bullying they encounter (“Go back to where you came from!”) but also because they could come home to no parents (detained by ICE).

As “a way to care for [the kids] and show them God’s goodness and promises to them through music,” Weatherholtz wrote the song “Somos Ovejas del Señor” (We Are the Sheep of the Lord), based on Psalm 23. The kids really took to it, and it became the seed for an entire album, recorded last year in Mexico City under the moniker Alabanzaré (“I Will Praise”). To learn more about the inspiration behind and making of the album, watch the half-hour documentary below. For English subtitles, click the “CC” button on the video player.

“I want immigrants and children of immigrants to hear and to know that they are important, that they have worth in this life, that they bear the image of God,” Weatherholtz said. “God is present, taking care of them.”

The album gives children a language of prayer and praise that they can sing amid their present circumstances. The opening track, “Espíritu Santo, Compañero Fiel,” celebrates the Holy Spirit as a faithful companion in good times and bad, accompanying us at school, when we play, and when we sleep. In “Como Niños,” Jesus invites boys and girls to “come closer,” tells them they’re small in size but big in faith—they’re wise and revolutionary. “Necesito Tu Ayuda, Oh Dios” is a prayer for protection, beginning “I need your help, oh God / Great sorrows I bring today / I feel sad and I don’t know what to do / Come to me soon, Protector.”

Somos ovejas del Senor

Stream or purchase Somos Ovejas del Señor on Bandcamp. Also available is an instrumental edition, released this summer.

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ARTICLE: “The Hidden Life of a Forgotten Sixteenth-Century Female Poet” by Jamie Quatro, New Yorker: Quatro writes about her distant relative Anne Vaughan Lock, a poet, translator, Calvinist religious figure, and, significantly, the first writer to publish a sonnet sequence in English. A gloss of Psalm 51, Lock’s “A Meditation of a Penitent Sinner” comprises twenty-six poems, published in 1560, thirty-one years before Philip Sidney’s “Astrophil and Stella” (long held to be the world’s first English sonnet sequence). “Lock’s cardinal place in the history of the sonnet cycle may not be news to scholars. But for me—a poetry-loving, feminist, conflicted Protestant English-Ph.D. dropout—it was an endorphin-surge of a discovery.” [HT: ImageUpdate]

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DANCE: Last month I posted a dance number from my favorite television dance show, So You Think You Can Dance, and now I’m going to post another one—from September 2’s episode. Choreographed by Talia Favia, “Amen” is danced by Ezra Sosa, Gino Cosculluela, and Bailey Muñoz to a song by Amber Run. It’s not a religious song, but it does use the language of prayer (and is performed with a choir), which the choreography and set design highlight. The speaker of the song is presumably talking to his recently deceased lover, trying to come to terms with his grief, to accept the painful loss. An anguished “Amen”—“Let it be”—repeats throughout. The dance routine expresses rage in the face of death and the struggle to submit to what is. It’s a phenomenal performance by these three young men.

When I post dance videos here, they tend to be emotionally volatile, but dance can be joyous and fun and sassy too, and SYTYCD has the full spectrum! Season 16 just wrapped, but if you want a taste, check out the final episode, which reprises a lot of my favorite routines of the season—sweet ones like “I’ll Be Seeing You,” “Slide,” and “The Girl from Ipanema”; comedic ones like “Mambo Italiano” and “Long Tall Sally”; and sexy ones like “You Can Leave Your Hat On,” “Tempo,” “Need You Tonight,” and “I Can’t Stand the Rain.”

Roundup: A sign of the times; multifaith art exhibit; Hildegard of Bingen musical; and more

After nudges from several readers, I’ve decided to join Instagram! Follow me @art_and_theology. I’m still trying to settle on how I’d like to use the platform, but in the meantime, I’ve been sharing photos I’ve taken on visits to art museums and spaces that house sacred art. (And in case you don’t already know, Art & Theology is also on Facebook and Twitter.)

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DANCE: “Sign of the Times,” choreographed by Travis Wall: Premiering August 19, 2019, on Fox’s So You Think You Can Dance (season 16, episode 11), this contemporary dance piece is choreographer Travis Wall’s response to the gun violence epidemic in America. It’s a communal lament through movement, really—an expression of fear, sadness, pain, anger, frustration, and defiance. It is performed by this season’s “top ten”: Benjamin Castro, Gino Cosculluela, Eddie Hoyt, Madison Jordan, Anna Linstruth, Bailey Muñoz, Sophie Pittman, Mariah Russell, Ezra Sosa, and Stephanie Sosa.

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FEATURED POET: Marjorie Maddox: The latest installment of Abbey of the Arts’ Featured Poet series is, as usual, wonderful! I’ve read some of Maddox’s poems in magazines and anthologies but haven’t yet gotten my hands on one of her collections. This feature has incentivized me to request a copy of Transplant, Transport, Transubstantiation through my local library.

“The work of poetry,” Maddox writes, is “empathy and epiphany. The process of writing and reading allows us to better understand this world and the next. Poetry connects the local and universal, the mundane and the miraculous. It gives us those ears to hear and eyes to see that we might, then, head back into the turning world sustained, nourished, and willing to learn more. And will this not lead us to the Sacred? Yes, I say. Yes.”

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ESSAY: “Acts of Attention: On Poetry and Spirituality” by Robert Cording: I really enjoyed this essay from Image journal about the importance of attending to the world. “Attention is simply a loving look at what is,” writes Cording, a poet and birdwatcher. He discusses seeing not as a physiological act but as perceiving the fullness that exists in each moment. “Seeing is impossible without love or reverence,” he says. Along the way he engages with Marie Howe, Aristotle, Emerson and Thoreau, Tolstoy, Ruskin, Heidegger, Hopkins, Czesław Miłosz, and Marilynne Robinson. He also walks us through three poems: Robert Frost’s “Two Tramps in Mud Time,” Wallace Stevens’s “Man on the Dump,” and Seamus Heaney’s “The Pitchfork.” So much goodness here!

If you enjoyed this essay as much as I did, be sure to also check out “Cloud Shapes and Oak Trees,” also by Cording, from 2017.

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EXHIBITION: Abraham: Out of One, Many, curated by Rev. Paul-Gordon Chandler of Caravan: Caravan is an international nonprofit that uses the arts to build sustainable peace around the world. “Our peacebuilding work is based on the belief that the arts can serve as one of the most effective mediums to enhance understanding, bring about respect, enable sharing, and facilitate friendship between diverse peoples, cultures and faiths.”

Caravan’s current exhibition is built around Abraham, a key ancestral figure shared by the world’s three major monotheistic religions: Judaism, Christianity, and Islam. Caravan commissioned three Middle Eastern artists, one from each of these faith traditions, to each create five paintings on these subjects: Living as a Pilgrim, Welcoming the Stranger, Sacrificial Love, The Compassionate, and A Friend of God. The exhibition of resulting works opened May 3 at St. Paul’s Within the Walls in Rome. From there it has traveled to Paris and Edinburgh and, starting September 8, will be in the States, touring through 2021 with stops in Boston, Atlanta, Houston, Washington, DC, Chicago, and more (see schedule). There’s an excellent digital catalog available, which contains full-color reproductions and descriptions of all fifteen paintings.

Hussein, Sinan_Living as a Pilgrim
Sinan Hussein (Iraqi, 1977–), Living as a Pilgrim, 2019. Mixed media on canvas, 45 × 60 cm. Part of the “Abraham: Out of One, Many” exhibition organized by Caravan.
Sindy, Qais Al_Welcoming the Stranger
Qais Al Sindy (Iraqi, 1967–), Welcoming the Stranger, 2019. Oil and collage on canvas, 60 × 45 cm. Part of the “Abraham: Out of One, Many” exhibition organized by Caravan.

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MUSICAL: In the Green by Grace McLean: Lincoln Center Theater’s LCT3 produces shows by new playwrights, directors, and designers, and for this summer, they commissioned a musical about the twelfth-century German mystic Hildegard of Bingen. (It finished its run on August 4, so I’m late in publicizing it—sorry!) A Benedictine nun and later abbess, Hildegard was also a composer, poet, dramatist, theologian, botanist, and healer—a true polymath. In the Green focuses on her relationship with her mentor, Jutta, just six years her senior.

Here’s Grace McLean, the show’s lyricist, composer, playwright, and player of Jutta, performing “Eve” (which uses looping technology!), followed by a short conversation between her and one of the other cast members. [HT: Still Life]

Roundup: On crossing borders

In a recent conversation, poet and novelist Joy Kogawa said, “We need to see each other’s eyes, and see each other through each other’s eyes.” Art, from all disciplines, can help us do that. Art can awaken our social conscience and breed empathy and understanding. It can serve as a vehicle for lament, a practice of voicing suffering before God. It can also widen our imaginations—that is, in part, our ability to think up creative solutions to problems both big and small. Here are just a few recent justice-oriented art projects that inspire me.

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CLASSIC SONG REVISED: Earlier this month Liz Vice, Paul Zach, and Orlando Palmer took Woody Guthrie’s folk classic “This Land Is Your Land” and, gathering at Trinity Church in Charlottesville, Virginia, revised the lyrics and tone to project lament over some of America’s more troubling legacies. The lyrical turn happens in the fourth line: where we would expect “To the New York islands,” we get “To the Texas border,” turning our mind from the country’s beauty to its broken systems that prevent us from sharing abundance with our southern neighbors fleeing violence. The song continues to plot a path through various places of historical and present-day suffering in the US, the three stanzas compactly addressing immigration; slavery, the “New Jim Crow,” and police brutality against black people; and the forcible expulsion of Native Americans from their ancestral territories, as well as massacres and other forms of colonialist violence.

This land is your land
This land is my land
From California
To the Texas border
Through the Juarez mountains
With the migrant caravans
This land was made for you and me

This land is your land
This land is my land
From the piers of Charleston
To the fields of cotton
From the crowded prisons
To the streets of Ferguson
This land was made for you and me

This land is your land
This land is my land
From the Jamestown landing
To Lakota Badlands
From the Trail of Tears to
The reservations
This land was made for you and me

Most people don’t know it, but Guthrie actually wrote “This Land Is Your Land” as a protest against the vast income inequalities in the US. Two of its original verses, the radical ones, were nixed when it came time to record (it was the McCarthy era, after all); these referenced breadlines and tall walls with “No Trespassing” signs. In its original form, the song celebrated America as a place of natural abundance—forests and streams and wheat fields under “endless skyways”—while lamenting the scarcity that many Americans experience. The refrain, therefore, was more loaded. Learn more about the song’s history at https://www.npr.org/2000/07/03/1076186/this-land-is-your-land.

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Seesaws at the border
An interactive art installation by Rael San Fratello on July 27, 2019, fostered cross-border interactions between residents of Sunland Park, New Mexico, and Colonia Anapra, Mexico.

SEESAWS AT THE BORDER: On July 27, Oakland-based creative duo Ronald Rael and Virginia San Fratello installed three bright pink teeter-totters through the slats of a section of the US-Mexico border wall that separates the neighboring communities of Sunland Park, New Mexico and Colonia Anapra, Mexico. Citizens on both sides were invited to ride this playground essential with a cross-border partner—a whimsical way to engage the other. As the creators said, it enabled people to literally feel the weight of humanity on the other side, using the wall as a fulcrum. The installation lasted forty minutes before it was dismantled (without incident).

I love this idea of play as protest—teeter-tottering as an act of creative defiance. What was enacted July 27 at the wall was a theater of the absurd, something that Rael, an architect, is especially drawn to in his practice. He actually conceived of Teeter-Totter Wall ten years ago, publishing a conceptual drawing in the book Borderwall as Architecture (University of California Press, 2009), along with other outlandish design possibilities for turning the wall into something that brings together rather than divides—these include its use as a massive xylophone played with weapons of mass percussion, a bookshelf feature inside a binational library, and more. Through these humorous proposals, Rael “reimagin[es] design as both an undermining and reparative measure,” as Dr. Marilyn Gates put it.

In his 2018 TED Talk, Rael discusses how the wall, meant to separate, has actually served to unite people in some instances. He mentions, for example, games of Wall y Ball, a variation on volleyball that was established at the wall in 1979, and binational yoga classes. I’ve heard of the Eucharist being celebrated jointly through the slats, and picnics hosted—such as the one organized in Tecate by the French artist JR on October 8, 2017: families passed plates of food between the bars, and musicians on both sides played the same songs.

JR_Picnic at the Border
A picnic at the US-Mexico border on October 8, 2017, organized by the elusive street artist JR

This picnic was the capstone of a month-long installation by JR featuring a monumental photograph of a Mexican toddler named Kikito, peering over the border wall into California from Tecate. (The photograph was held up with scaffolding.)

Kikito by JR
In early September 2017, street artist JR created a massive art installation on the Mexican side of the US border wall in Tecate showing a child, Kikito, peering over.

Shared play, shared food, shared music, shared sacrament—these are such breathtakingly beautiful countermeasures to separatism. The world needs more imaginative acts like these.

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POEM: Timothy E.G. Bartel has just published a new poem, “Status Check,” over at Curator. It’s only five lines, seven questions. A must-read. It’s not about immigration policy per se (it’s open-ended), but it took me back to another poem by Bartel that I featured back in 2017 as part of a blog post entitled “One sonnet vs. shouted prose: Lady Liberty, Emma Lazarus, and Trump.” Bartel has since published a freely downloadable chapbook (a compilation of Sapphic stanzas he wrote this year during National Poetry Month) and a traditionally published collection with Kelsay Books, Aflame but Unconsumed, which I just ordered and am excited about.

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VIRTUAL REALITY INSTALLATION: This was in DC last year and I missed it! A VR experience directed by the multi-Academy-Award-winning Alejandro G. Iñárritu, known for the films Birdman, The Revenant, Biutiful, and Babel, and shot by (also multiple-award-winning) cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki. “Carne y Arena is a six-and-a-half-minute solo experience that employs state-of-the-art technology to create a multi-narrative space with human characters. . . . Based on true accounts from Central American and Mexican refugees, [it] blurs and binds together the superficial lines between subject and bystander, allowing individuals to walk in a vast space and live a fragment of a refugee’s personal journey.”

“It’s a way of understanding, which is another way to love somebody,” Iñárritu said in a video interview recorded against the backdrop of Jacob Lawrence’s Migration series.

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In terms of lectures, I highly recommend the three-part series “A Light unto Our Feet: How Does the Bible Orient Us Toward Immigration?” by Dr. M. Daniel Carroll R. (Rodas), delivered November 1–3, 2018, for the Diocese of Christ Our Hope. Dr. Carroll is the author of Christians at the Border: Immigration, the Church, and the Bible (Brazos Press, 2014).

Roundup: Round dance of praise; minimalist church architecture; Psalm 46 sung in Spanish; Armenian Christian heritage destroyed; and more

Image journal subscriptions are 50% off through the summertime—only $24 for four full-color issues! This is the magazine I most look forward to receiving in the mail. So much great poetry, art, essays, and more.

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NEW POEM: “They Too Go Round” by Paul Mariani: This poem from the current issue of Image journal (no. 101) brings together Pieter Bruegel the Elder’s Wedding Dance with Fra Angelico’s Last Judgment at San Marco, gesturing toward a vision in which the terrestrial is taken up into the celestial. Bruegel’s Dutch peasant dancers “pound” and “rollick” with beer foam on their faces and general bawdiness; the saints from the Fra Angelico painting, by contrast, step lithely and with reverence in their round dance on the very grasses of paradise. Disparate though they are in tone, Mariani connects these two images, playing with the idea of circling. Just as the wedding guests dance round and round, so too does time; so too the spheres. And at the center of this cosmic round dance is praise: humanity linked hand in hand with the angels, not closed in on themselves but opening up into the glory of God.

The Wedding Dance by Pieter Bruegel the Elder
Pieter Bruegel the Elder (ca. 1525–1569), The Wedding Dance, ca. 1566. Oil on panel, 119.3 × 157.4 cm. Detroit Institute of Arts, Michigan, USA.
Fra Angelico_Last Judgment
Fra Angelico (ca. 1395–1455), The Last Judgment (detail), ca. 1431. Tempera on wood, 105 × 210 cm. Museum of San Marco, Florence, Italy.

The last stanza quotes an excerpt from a famous medieval Catholic prayer: “Sinning daily, and not repenting, the fear of death disturbs me, for there is no redemption in Hell. Have mercy on me, O God, and save me.” The speaker’s anxiety has been building up as he reflects on the empty pleasures to which he has been so long devoted and the imminence of death. This anxiety, however, is swept away in one turn as he catches a glimpse of God’s abundant salvation and its final consummation—a “sea-changing moment, now and forever.” Christ, the fulfillment of all desire, sits on his throne at the center of this turning world, beckoning us into the dance of the redeemed.

(FYI, Paul Mariani will be one of the plenary speakers at the Catholic Imagination Conference at Loyola in September. Registration is still open!)

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CHURCH ARCHITECTURE: Known for his work in concrete, Spanish architect Fernando Menis designed the new Holy Redeemer Church in Tenerife, Spain, consecrated May 12. I’m digging the minimalism. Learn more and view more photos on the architect’s website. [HT: ArtWay]

Holy Redeemer Church (Tenerife)
Holy Redeemer Church, Tenerife, Spain. Designed by Fernando Menis, completed 2019.
Holy Redeemer Church (Tenerife)
Interior: Holy Redeemer Church, Tenerife, Spain. Designed by Fernando Menis, completed 2019.

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CHORAL ARRANGEMENT: “Dios es Nuestro Amparo” (God Is Our Refuge), arr. Alfredo Colman: I love this traditional setting of Psalm 46 in Spanish, recently arranged by Alfredo Colman and performed by the Coro del Seminario Internacional Teológico Bautista (Choir of the International Baptist Theological Seminary) in Buenos Aires, Argentina. [HT: Global Christian Worship]

I was curious about the history of the song, so I wrote to Colman; he said he first encountered it in Paraguay, where he grew up, but doesn’t know its country of origin. The song, he told me, has been well known in Latin America since the 1970s. While this particular arrangement of Colman’s has not yet been published, you can find a simpler arrangement for congregational singing in the bilingual hymnal Santo, Santo, Santo: Cantos para el pueblo de Dios / Holy, Holy, Holy: Songs for the People of God, released just this month. Edited by the Calvin Institute of Christian Worship (CICW) in partnership with GIA Publications, it contains over 700 songs in Spanish and English.

For a vision and resources for singing together in Spanish and English, see this recorded CICW workshop, led by Colman and five others, and also the article “Expand Your Church’s Bilingual Music Repertoire.” Introducing bilingual music to a church congregation is “like introducing a new vegetable to toddlers,” says María Eugenia Cornou, the CICW program manager for international and intercultural learning. “Some kids love it, but usually it takes time. It’s a new flavor.”

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CULTURAL DESTRUCTION: “A Regime Conceals Its Erasure of Indigenous Armenian Culture” by Simon Maghakyan and Sarah Pickman: An investigative report published in February exposed Azerbaijan’s destruction of thousands of medieval Christian Armenian artworks and objects at the necropolis of Djulfa in Nakhichevan. The cemetery at Djulfa contained the world’s largest collection of khachkars, ornately carved memorial steles with crosses, characteristic of Armenian Christianity; 2,920 were documented clandestinely by native Argam Ayvazyan from 1964 to 1987, half of the 5,840 he documented in Nakhichevan as a whole. But, other than the dozen that were removed from the region during or before the Soviet era into church or museum collections, all these were demolished by Azerbaijani soldiers in 1997, 2002, and 2005–6, expunging the region’s last remaining traces of Christianity. (This was in addition to the demolition of 89 Armenian churches and 22,000 tombstones in Nakhichevan.)

Djulfa cross-stone
A 1915 photograph of researcher Aram Vruyr’s son with one of many thousand khachkars (cross-stones) at Djulfa, enhanced by Judith Crispin’s Julfa Cemetery Digital Repatriation Project. Courtesy Aram Vruyr Archives.
St. Thomas Cathedral (Armenia, now lost)
Surb Tovma (St. Thomas Cathedral) in Agulis, Nakhichevan, Azerbaijan, which tradition states was founded as a chapel by Bartholomew the Apostle. Now destroyed. Photo © Argam Ayvazyan Archives, 1970–1981.

“Unlike the self-publicized cultural destruction of ISIS, independent Azerbaijan’s covert campaign to re-engineer Nakhichevan’s historical landscape between 1997 and 2006 is little known outside the region. . . . While some Azerbaijanis have embraced their government’s vandalism as either righteous revenge or a national security measure against potential Armenian territorial claims, other Azerbaijanis . . . have mourned the destruction.”

Here is a short video posted in December 2005 by Nshan Topouzian, the leader of north Iran’s Armenian church, who was tipped off to the destructive activity taking place at the Djulfa cemetery by an Iranian border patrol. (Djulfa is located at the border of Azerbaijan and Iran.)

Hyperallergic pointed out the “cruel irony” and “insult” of Azerbaijan hosting UNESCO’s World Heritage Committee session earlier this month. UNESCO not only avoided a public condemnation of the destruction of Armenian Christian artifacts and churches in Nakhichevan but also praised Azerbaijan (one of its biggest donors) as a “land of tolerance.”

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ARTICLE: “6 Works of Classical Music Every Christian Should Know” by Jeremy Begbie: Theologian and pianist Jeremy Begbie is a superstar in the field of theology and the arts. Most of his books, published for academic audiences, are pretty dense, but this article that he wrote for The Gospel Coalition is wonderfully accessible. It opens, “Why bother with classical music? On the face of it, it seems like a serious indulgence to give time and attention to something so trivial as music—classical or otherwise. Yet the fact remains that no human society, however impoverished, has yet managed to do without music in some form. The impulse to sing, to blow air through wooden tubes, and to draw hair across strings seems ineradicable. What’s more, it’s long been recognized that people pour their deepest longings and passions into music-making. Music can be a remarkable index of the profoundest impulses and stirrings of a culture—impulses and stirrings that are often theologically charged.”

He then recommends six works of classical music to spend time with, highlighting the best recordings and musical guides available. From the “bubbling, joyful abundance” of a Mozart piano concerto (“a fresh iteration of creation’s hallelujah”) to the “aching beauty” of Rachmaninov, there’s variety here. Find out what Begbie considers to be “the greatest Christian musical achievement of the early modern era,” and which symphony contains, from its penultimate to final movement, one of the best transitions in Western music.

Begbie is the founder Duke Initiatives in Theology and the Arts, and the program is throwing a big symposium in September to celebrate its ten-year anniversary. I’ll be there! Join me? If you can’t swing the registration cost but live in the Triangle area of North Carolina, consider coming out on Saturday night to “Making All Things New: The Sound of New Creation,” a concert featuring a range of music, “from Bach to Bernstein, Rachmaninov to Latino, medieval to jazz, concert music to film music,” as well as a reflection by N. T. Wright. I attended a similar Begbie-led concert at Duke two years ago, and it was phenomenal.

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FILM: Ida (2013), dir. Pavel Pawlikowski: This Oscar Award–winning film about identity and faith is a great watch, especially for its stunning cinematography by Lukasz Zal and Ryszard Lenczewski. Shot in high-contrast black-and-white in the classic 4:3 format, it is almost entirely made up of static frames, exquisitely composed. I really just can’t get over the visuals. Watch the trailer and film clip below, and you’ll get a sense of what I mean. The movie is available on Kanopy, an on-demand streaming service provided for free by many public libraries.

Roundup: Too much religion; the single story; fore-edge paintings; choral evensong; and more

EXHIBITION REVIEW: “Overstating the religious?” by Christopher Knight, Los Angeles Times: Michael Wright brought to my attention an old review of the 2003 LACMA exhibition “The Circle of Bliss: Buddhist Meditational Art,” in which art critic Christopher Knight harshly faults the curators for using religion as the organizing principle . . . of an exhibition of religious art. He says it’s “bizarre” and “inappropriate” that

traditional artistic concerns of art museum exhibitions – style, historical context, connoisseurship, artist biography, etc. – play no part in [the objects’] presentation. Instead, LACMA’s galleries unfold as the articulation and embodiment of a religious philosophy. . . . You will leave this exhibition having not a clue who these artists were . . . and how (or if) their imagery evolved. Instead, the reason for the art’s inclusion is to instruct us in various aspects of the embodiment of perfect compassion – that is, to provide experience with critical theological nuances of “the Middle Way.”

Mandala of the Buddhist Deity Chakrasamvara
Mandala of the Buddhist deity Chakrasamvara, Nepal, 1490. Mineral pigments on cotton cloth, 46 × 34 5/8 in. Los Angeles County Museum of Art, California.

The review itself struck me as bizarre—that Knight decries the exhibition’s focus on the religious meaning of these Tantric paintings, which he considers secondary to their aesthetic qualities and altogether outside the purview of an art institution to comment on. I was glad to see that several readers responded in letters, such as Andy Serrano, who wrote that “up until recent centuries, people did not make art for art’s sake. People who made religious art made it in order to enhance the religious experience in one way or another. Separating religious art without the context of religion is like trying to swim without getting wet.” Phil Cooke chimed in, “The fact that Knight sees no legitimate connection between art and the religious faith that inspired it is at once outrageous and yet sadly typical of current critical assumptions.” [HT: Still Life]

A decade and a half after this exhibition closed, I’ve observed that curators, critics, and art historians oftentimes still struggle to discern or articulate (or else they simply neglect) the theological content and/or devotional purposes of religious art, as they preoccupy themselves instead with the “traditional artistic concerns” Knight mentions. But I do feel that the situation is improving overall, with wider-spread recognition that evaluating certain works of art through the primary lens of religion—if that’s the context in and for which they were created—is not only permissible but essential.

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TED TALK: “The Danger of a Single Story” by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie: The single story, says Nigerian novelist Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, is when one story (about a person, place, or ethnicity) becomes the only story, creating stereotypes, or a flattened perspective. Adichie admits to having had a single story of her household servant growing up (“poverty”), and later on, of Mexicans (“the abject immigrant”). Many Americans have a single story of Africa. But the problem is, we are all formed by many stories, no single one more definitive than another—and we need to talk about them all. [HT: Sarah Quezada]

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ESSAY: “And God Said to Pastors: Use More Sermon Puns and Plan More Parties” by W. David O. Taylor, Christianity Today: Taylor gives three reasons to practice levity and humor in public worship, quoting Augustine, Chesterton, Lewis, Barth, Capon, Buechner, Ratzinger, and Eugene Peterson along the way. I especially like his first point about grace and hyper-abundance.

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ESSAY: “In Defense of Owning Too Many Books” by Daniel Melvill Jones, The Curator: I relate to this author’s tottering stacks of books throughout his house—having exhausted my shelf space, I also have them in closets, hutches, and chests. I’m a bibliophile, what can I say. Probably about a third of the books in my personal library I haven’t read yet, which, I affirm with Daniel M. Jones, is both humbling and tantalizing, a “promise of ideas to explore.”

Potential is not in the books you’ve read but in those that remain unread. Therefore, you ought to expand the rows of what you do not know as much as your resources allow, and expect them to keep growing as you get older and accumulate more knowledge.

The books you surround yourself with “will feed [your] life and output in unseen ways.” So stock up!

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FORE-EDGE PAINTINGS: The Boston Public Library has one of the world’s finest collections of fore-edge paintings, an art form originating around the tenth century but popularized in the eighteenth, utilizing as a surface the edge of a book opposite its spine. Over time, the content of these paintings evolved from decorative or heraldic designs to landscapes and narrative scenes, like these two from volumes 1 and 2 of a Bible printed in Edinburgh in 1803. [HT: Public Domain Review]

Annunciation (fore-edge painting)
The Annunciation after Fra Lippo Lippi, painted on the fore-edge of a Bible (vol. 1 of 2) printed in Edinburgh in 1803. Collection of Boston Public Library.
Last Supper (fore-edge painting)
The Last Supper after Leonardo da Vinci, painted on the fore-edge of a Bible (vol. 2 of 2) printed in Edinburgh in 1803. Collection of Boston Public Library.

Great Big Story recently featured contemporary fore-edge painter Martin Frost, who specializes in the vanishing variety. Cool!

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MUSIC DOCUMENTARY: “Elizabeth I’s Battle for God’s Music,” presented by Lucy Worsley: Aired in October 2017 on BBC Four, this hourlong program presents a history of choral evensong, the Protestant church service of music and prayer born out of the English Reformation and still performed today. Worsley moves through the Tudor monarchs, discussing their relationship to sacred music—from Henry VIII, who broke away from the Catholic Church but didn’t want to abandon the Latin mass, and who thus hired Thomas Tallis to compose in a more austere style in which the words of the liturgy could be more easily understood; to his son Edward VI, who, in his dislike of elaborate music, ordered the disbanding of choirs and the destruction of organs, but also supported the creation of the first complete English prayer-book (Thomas Cranmer’s Book of Common Prayer) and John Marbeck’s musical guide to it; to Mary I, who returned England to Catholicism, with its high-church music, all in Latin; and finally Elizabeth I, a moderate Protestant whose compromising spirit led to the reinstatement of English evensong but with much leeway given as to how it is set, whether in monophony, homophony, or polyphony. Elizabeth’s patronage and legal protections of church music made possible the glorious compositions of, among others, William Byrd, and ensured the survival of choral evensong. [HT: Global Christian Worship]

Choral evensong is a continuing tradition, and Worsley concludes by highlighting its new possibilities, such as the Oxford Blues Service by Roderick Williams. Listen to an excerpt on the SoundCloud player below.